Monday, 30 April 2012

The Safe Deposit Box: Creating a Financial Wikileaks

If you were a bank employee with information about wrongdoing in your division, would you be happy to approach your senior management about it? The Whistleblower Improvement Act of 2011 would require just that, making financial whistleblowers report their concerns to company management rather than approaching government agencies directly. The act has been backed by Rep. Michael Grimm, a former FBI agent who spent a couple years undercover trying to bust dodgy stock brokerages for securities fraud. You’d think that experience would make him attuned to the problems of financial crime, but Michael Smallberg of POGO argues that “Rep. Grimm’s legislation would hobble SEC and CFTC enforcement, chill the flow of high-quality insider tips, imperil the safety and livelihood of whistleblowers, and give law-breaking companies an accountability escape hatch”.

I don't know enough about the proposed legislation to hold any definite views, but in any case GovTrack reckons that there’s only a 2% chance of the bill being passed. The greatest barriers to whistleblowing though, are social, not legal. It’s the threat of being shunned by colleagues, or passed over for promotion. Occasionally an employee just doesn't care about the social fallout, as in the case of Greg Smith’s public letter about Goldman Sachs, but more often than not they do. A life built around workplace social networks can act as a shield against speaking out against it. Potential whistleblowers doubt themselves, or don’t want to be seen as the one to spoil the party (Check out Joris Luyendijk's interview with a whistleblower). Legal support mechanisms do exist for whistleblowers, there’s little in the way of internal cultural support.

The Case for a Financial Wikileaks
That's why I reckon it's very important to have leak sites. They protect employees (to some extent) from senior management retribution, but also provide a way to bypass the social barriers to speaking out. Financial whistleblowers can currently make use of various leak sites (check out the Leak site directory), and regulatory agencies such as the FSA and the Serious Fraud Office do provide mechanisms for them. Wikileaks has previously been used for financial leaks regarding Julius Baer and Barclays, and in 2011 there was speculation that they were going to release a bombshell on Bank of America, based on emails obtained by Anonymous (In the end the emails ended up on and here, apparently showing dodgy dealings at a BoA subsidiary called Balboa, obtained via a leaker who claimed the bank was trying to cover it up).

Wikileaks though, has mostly made a name for itself in exposing political controversy. People don’t predominantly think of it as the place to go for corporate wrongdoing, and corporate disclosures on the site run the risk of being drowned out by the drone of government abuse. A group that does specialise in corporate disclosure is Anonymous Analytics, a wing of Anonymous specialising in "Acquiring information through unconventional means" (AKA hacking and subterfuge), and presenting it in the form of faux financial research reports. They made a stir last year for exposing potential fraud at Chaoda Modern Agriculture, a Hong Kong company that AnonAnalytics claimed was “overstating its cash balance, exaggerating its revenue, and falsifying its financial statements.” Last week they 'initiated coverage' on Huaboa International, calling it a 'pump and dump scheme with the primary objective of enriching its chairwoman'. AnonAnalystics specialises in 'primary research', but for a while it offered a dropbox facility for would-be whistleblowers. They recently shut that down, apparently because they were unable to deal with the volume of tips, comments and emails they received. Sounds like they need some more staff.

It's not just about crime
Organisations like AnonAnalytics are focused on overt cases of corporate fraud and headline grabbing controversies. Nevertheless, while having channels to expose criminality is important, there are many other equally valid reasons to create a leak site. Wikileaks release of the diplomatic cables, for example, didn't really reveal anything that controversial, but were fascinating because they offered a rare window into the internal culture of diplomatic life, the petty squabbles and power dynamics. It provided huge amounts of material for academic researchers and journalists to gain a better understanding of an otherwise opaque and closed area. There are very few such windows into the financial sector, and to date people have relied on various works of literary pop finance (e.g.Liar's Poker), and once off curiosities such as the Goldman Sachs Elevator Gossip twitter account to get mini-leaks about financial culture.

The Safe Deposit Box: A Tool for Transparency

It seems that there may be a case for a specialised financial leak site. Here's my back-of-the-envelope sketch for the Safe Deposit Box, a site focused on improving transparency in financial institutions (e.g. banks, funds) and commodity trading outfits, by providing a channel to encourage internal leaks. It could be curated by individuals with financial expertise, such that information leaked could be vetted for accuracy and presented correctly (something that non-specialist leak sites might not be able to do effectively). The site could be split into two divisions with different purposes:

  1. A whistleblowing section to allow financial employees to expose dubious behaviour, such as instances of financial crime, market manipulation, insider trading, and rogue trading.
  2. A transparency initiative focused on shedding light on the inner workings of financial institutions. This section would encourage employees to contribute information such as organisational structures, divisional strategies, risk exposures, compensation, and other info that helps to break the near impenetrable wall of secrecy large financial institutions frequently enjoy.
Many people intuitively understand the value of division 1, but division 2 is more tricky to justify. What's the point of transparency for transparency's sake? I would argue that banks and other financial institutions have huge political clout, and yet most citizens have almost no insight into their workings and strategies. For example, do most residents of Chicago have any idea of how a Morgan Stanley consortium came to be owning the city's parking metres? At a larger systemic scale too, it’s the very opacity of financial transactions that leads to increased systemic risk, which in turn impacts broader society. Providing a channel for financial employees to shed light on their organisations would thus have 1) a democratic empowerment benefit and 2) a research and regulation benefit, providing more material for citizens, academics and regulators to understand and monitor the sector.

The transparency initiative could be split into specific research domains that are of particular concern to researchers, campaigners and regulators. For example, domains could include:

  • A high-pay transparency programme to gather leaked payrolls, compensation reports and other material to help in monitoring financial incentive systems
  • A tax haven programme to gather lists of subsidiaries, offshore transactions and other material to help shed light on international tax avoidance systems
  • A loan transparency programme to gather info on loan portfolios of corporate banking divisions, thereby helping to monitor socially and environmentally irresponsible lending
  • A programme gathering info on banks' dealings with Polically Exposed Persons, authoritarian regimes, and dodgy individuals
  • A systemic risk programme gathering info on prop trading levels, interbank risk exposures, and shadow banking systems
  • A programme collecting info on poor customer service (Aka. treating clients as muppets)

I wouldn’t want to be too flippant about this. After all, in encouraging breaches to confidentiality this does border on illegality. Confidentiality though, is frequently used to block attempts to research real issues of concern. For example, in my research into the potentially damaging effects of commodity speculation, I hit a brick wall in trying to find out how much banks make in their agricultural commodity trading desks. They simply don't report it, and refuse any requests for the information. I'm of the opinion that it would be good for society to have some basic info in that regard, to assess whether this is a problem. Similarly, in my research into Glencore in the DRC, I’d love to find out the beneficial ownerships of the shell companies they do business with there. Is there any back office employee in Glencore who wants to send that to me?


I understand the problems of breaching confidentiality, and I know that leak sites are far from perfect. There are major issues of how such a site would be structured and who would have access to the leaked info. Would you use a (structurally and politically) centralised Wikileaks structure, or something more decentralised like OpenLeaks (set up by Wikileaks defectors, but still yet to launch). Is it better to promote something more conciliatory and collaborative, more like Wikipedia, to allow people with financial expertise to contribute knowledge? All these questions are worth asking. What I do know though, is that financial secrecy tends to benefit a pretty small swathe of society, whilst affecting a huge swathe, and I'm sure many financial workers would love an opportunity to spread the love by spreading the knowledge.

Then again, I have suspicion that such a site might attract the small problem of the financial blockade.